The very first scene in Burr Steers’ 17 Again is of Zac Efron shirtless and sweaty, and the next scene is of Efron dancing—from there it’s not difficult to see what purpose this movie is supposed to serve. Namely, it’s here to please Efron’s tween fans by parading around his heartthrobiness for 100 minutes, while occasionally showing off his unique talents (and yes, being shirtless counts as talent in some corners).
The movie itself is one of those family-friendly fantasies that crop up here and there, where an adult is transformed into a teen and sent off to learn important life lessons—think of either version of Freaky Friday or Like Father Like Son (1987), starring pre-Christian soldier Kirk Cameron and Arthur 2-era Dudley Moore. In this case, it’s an exhausted-looking Matthew Perry with hair like a barbeque brush who goes through the transmogrifying. Perry plays Mike O’Donnell, a down-on-his-luck father in the midst of an ugly divorce who has just quit his dead-end job at a pharmaceutical company. Years ago, Mike was a hotshot in high school and had a chance at a basketball scholarship—before learning his girlfriend (TV actress Allison Miller) was pregnant. Choosing love and family over college, Mike gave up his dreams, which it seems, in the intervening two decades, has turned him into a sniveling, self-centered brat.
It’s not until a chance encounter with a magical janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray, Daddy Day Camp) that Mike is transformed back into his 17-year-old self (played by Efron). With the help of his nerdy best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon, TV’s Reno 911!), Mike enrolls in high school all over again in an attempt at living his life the way he wished he had in the first place. Of course, after 17-year-old Mike runs into his own kids (Michelle Trachtenberg, Euro Trip and TV actor Sterling Knight), he soon realizes that his true purpose is to fix his damaged family. The rest of the movie is fairly predictable, with everyone involved learning important lessons that will help make them better people and so on and so forth.
All of this is perfectly fine within the movie’s family-centric aims, especially if one can get past the idea that Matthew Perry—even on his best day—ever looked anything like Zac Efron. This goes beyond suspension of disbelief into the realm of suspension of cognition. Unfortunately, family-centric aims don’t keep the movie from being generally uninvolving and too steeped in sitcom-style high jinks.
On top of this, the movie has a habit of being occasionally creepy, seemingly by accident, though it’s hard to tell how anyone could’ve missed this in the creative process. Having 17-year-old Mike slow dance with his wife (Leslie Mann, Drillbit Taylor) is innocent enough on the surface. But having this much older woman slowly spinning in close-up and slow motion with this underage beefcake is just weird. And I’m not even sure I know where to start when it comes to Mike’s daughter awkwardly attempting to molest him.
In the end, as a Zac Efron vehicle, 17 Again accomplishes its own modest goals. Those aims, however, don’t really give anyone outside the realm of Efron fandom much reason to care. Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying.